Our reading from Acts today gives an account of Paul’s proclamation to the council of the Areopagus on Mars’ Hill. They wanted to hear what message he had been sharing with the people in the central marketplace known as the agora. The prevailing culture in that time and city was one of “cultured paganism”, underpinned by a ‘little bit of everything’. We see idolatry, and a mish-mash of ‘new thinking’ and often conflicting philosophies at work. Three things will have been evident to Paul:
- Idolatry is not of God or edifying to God, and arguably is demonic. No wonder Paul was greatly distressed by this (Acts 17:16).
- A faith based on myths, legends and tall stories is no faith.
- It is all very well to be immersed in and part of a society filled with culture and wisdom; but that gives people in that society a duty and a responsibility to exercise that wisdom. The Athenians had squandered that with their ‘anything goes’ philosophy and pursuit of ‘new thinking’, but in the absence of a personal relationship with God where does it leave you? In simple terms the Epicureans philosophy was “Enjoy life!” and the Stoics philosophy was “Endure life!” but it remained for Paul to explain how they could enter into fullness of life through faith in God’s risen Son.
Eric Hoffer wrote that “the fear of becoming a ‘has been’ keeps some people from becoming anything.” The person who constantly chases the new and ignores the old soon discovers that they have no deep roots to nourish their life. The people in Athens had no foundation in life or faith and would ultimately discover that nothing is really new; it’s just that our memories are poor (Ecclesiastes 1:8-11).
For Paul, it was much more simple yet infinitely more profound: to the Church in Corinth, Paul said “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:1b-5)
In addressing the council, Paul spoke directly into the context of that society and culture he had encountered in Athens by referring to their altar dedicated to an unknown god. He made a connection. We too must seek to speak into the context of the society and culture we find ourselves in too as we seek to make connections. Think about the ways in which you might make connections with friends, family, and the people in your community too.
Paul’s approach aroused their interest, so that he was then able to explain who God is and what He is like. The result?
- When Paul encountered the people in the central marketplace, one group ridiculed him and his teachings and called him a ‘babbler’ (Acts 17:18). The word literally means ‘birds picking up seed,’ and it refers to someone who collects various ideas and teaches as his own the secondhand thoughts he borrows from others. The sad irony is that the people accused Paul of doing precisely what they did themselves; this form of ‘deflection’ is sometimes the way that people avoid dealing with truth. We know from Paul’s life, faith and testimony that of the many ways we might describe him, a ‘babbler’ is certainly not one of them.
- Then others sneered (Acts 17:32),
- Others wanted to hear more (Acts 17:32), and
- Others followed Paul and believed (Acts 17:33) – bringing to mind the parable of the sower. The point is Paul was prepared to sow the seed and trust in God for the fruit of that labour.
It seems to me that the faith and culture in Athens involved people adopting a spectrum of ‘pseudo spiritualities’ to perhaps in some way “cover all bases” as if to guarantee their spiritual future. If you worship an idol to an “unknown god”, how can you have a personal relationship with that? You can’t have a relationship with something you do not know. The faith that we seek to developed has Jesus at its heart and our relationship with him.
No wonder Jesus said “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15) and went on to reassure us that he is with us at all times “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18) I don’t know about you but I find those words very comforting. I am not an orphan. I am adopted into God’s family. I am loved by Jesus. We can love because he first loved us, and if we love him, we will seek to be faithful and obey his commands and keep them. In that loving is a knowing and revealing – if we love Jesus, we will be loved by his heavenly Father and he will love us too and show himself to us. (John 14:21).
Our faith in Christ is not a chasing after the wind. It is not the pursuit of the unknown that is fruitless and pointless. It is being in relationship with a God of grace who loves us beyond measure and constantly gives us reassurance about his presence and plans for us, plans to prosper us and not to harm us. It is about a God who knows us intimately, our waking and our rising, our thoughts from afar.
This week may you be comforted as you remind yourself that you have been adopted into his family, you are not alone and abandoned, and you are so very precious to him. It’s clear from discussions I have had with many of you that you are precious to each other too!